The Last Jews of Ethiopia
The last community synagogue in Gondar, in the north of Ethiopia, is in a rented building cordoned off from the street by large metal sheets. Several men passively stand guard in front. From the outside, a Jewish Agency for Israel sign is the main indication of what lies within.
But neighbors know.
“You,” two men in frayed jeans and rubber sandals shouted as I paused at the wide street where they loitered. “Beta Israel?”
I nod in response.
“There,” they said, gesturing in the synagogue’s direction.
Beta Israel, or House of Israel, is the term for Ethiopia’s indigenous Jewish community. The Jews are also called Falasha, or “outsiders” in Ge’ez, the liturgical language of Ethiopian Christians and Jews. It is here, in the rolling green hills of Gondar, that a distinctive Ethiopian Jewish community of craftsmen and shepherds once thrived. They claimed to derive from the tribe of Dan, one of the lost 10 biblical tribes, although this claim remains historically disputed.
The typical Jewish or American travelers rarely reach Ethiopia, a landlocked country in the Horn of Africa where infrastructure is poor and poverty rampant. But Ethiopia is a desirable destination for travelers seeking new heights, as well as beautiful nature preserves and ancient religious sites. Several Jewish groups, such as Jewish Journeys Ltd., have organized sightseeing or fundraising trips to Gondar and to other areas in the north, like the Simien Mountains and Bahir Dar, where Jews were once populous. Others, like myself, make it their own way.
Travelers, however, will not be coming to this synagogue much longer.
On a Saturday in May, I entered the synagogue with a parade of Falasha children. They enthusiastically grasped my hand and, chattering, led me into the main hall. It is a large space filled with benches and divided by a thin cloth mechitzah, to separate the men from the women. The service is in Ge’ez, which shares the same Semitic roots as Hebrew, Arabic and local Amharic. Only the Kaddish is in recognizable Aramaic.
About 25 women sit in front, most of them dressed in white and wrapped in white shawls, common prayer attire for Christian, Muslim and Jewish women in Ethiopia. The men at this service wear the more distinctively Jewish talitot.
On the synagogue’s walls are posters chronicling the waves of aliyah. Over the years, Israelis have helped thousands of Falasha escape the hardships of Ethiopia to move to Israel.
The children around me have known only Gondar, and they told me that they want to go to Israel, too. They asked for my name in Hebrew, and they told me their respective names. They study the language at Gondar’s only Jewish day school. My American-accented Hebrew confused them.
One little girl, 10 years old and with an overbite and wide eyes, squeezed in beside me on the bench. She began to count in Hebrew, concentrating hard. She counted higher and higher, her recitation mixing with the murmurs of men on the other side of the mechitzah.
Near the service’s end, she grew impatient.
“I want a present,” she said to me in Hebrew. Then she repeated over and over, “Ani yafa [I am beautiful].” She persisted, her voice more deflated: “I am beautiful. Why no present?”
At the service’s conclusion, the children squealed. Then quiet wishes of “Shabbat Shalom” were shared. The Kiddush was recited, and baskets of torn Ethiopian sourdough bread were passed around. A few moments later, the community dispersed into the streets, blending into the crowds of brightly dressed Ethiopians.
The modern history of the Beta Israel is not one to romanticize. It is a complicated and oft-disputed story of competing political, religious and humanitarian interests — a portion of Jewish and world history often overlooked.
In 1975, the Israeli Rabbinate officially extended the Law of Return to the Beta Israel. This meant that the Falasha, like all Jews according to Israeli law, now had the right to Israeli citizenship. While some Israelis supported Ethiopian aliyah for humanitarian reasons, others simply wanted more Jews to populate the country.
Jewish Ethiopians were eager to leave their home country. For years Ethiopians suffered under the infamous despot Haile Selassie. Famine devastated the north, while fighting raged along the country’s borders with Eritrea, Somalia and the Sudan. During these troubling times, communities grew insular and hostile toward outsiders. The Falasha, for years largely unable to possess their own land, often became a target of Christian ill will.
In the 1980s, a series of devastating famines raged in Ethiopia’s rebellious north. Hundreds of thousands, including Falasha, left their villages for a treacherous trek to refugee camps at the Sudanese border, their only route for escape. In the covert Operation Moses (1984–85), the Israelis rescued nearly 7,000 Jews from the camps and brought them to refuge in Israel. Thousands more never made it.
Over the next decade, a civil war simmered. The Soviet-bloc kept Ethiopia’s quasi-socialist leader, Mengistu Haile Mariam, propped up against encroaching Eritrean and Tigrean rebels. Facing pressure from several Jewish Diaspora organizations, the Americans and Israelis pushed to accelerate the Falasha emigration. In response, the Mengistu government reportedly offered to leverage Falasha aliyah for Israeli arms. Mengistu’s eventual defeat loomed. In their most daring campaign, in May 1991, the Israelis airlifted more than 14,000 Falasha — most of whom had never seen a plane before — to Israel from Addis Ababa in just 36 hours. The event was dubbed Operation Solomon.
The Israeli Bureau of Statistics estimates that 78,000 Falasha have immigrated to Israel since 1980. There they have greater political freedoms and personal opportunities, but they also face racism and economic marginalization, a stain on the Ethiopian exodus story.
Today, a Jewish cemetery still exists in the forest on the outskirts of Gondar. Adjacent to the forest is an old Falasha village of brown huts. There, an aging woman, who claims she is the last Jew in the village, speaks of the suffering of her family members, now all dead or gone to Israel, and of the joy she finds in creating pottery. In the street outside, neighbors sell crafts they say come from the Falasha village, though it’s been years since a viable Falasha community lived here.
In another part of a city is a compound belonging to the Jewish Agency. The organization facilitates the aliyah process and provides some health and employment services to the Falasha. Inside the compound, Ethiopians patiently sit in rows, waiting for their cases to be heard by Jewish Agency officials, hoping that they will be granted permission to go to Israel.
Gondar’s only Jewish day school, run by the Jewish Agency, is a bumpy drive away. Here the children learn Hebrew in preparation for their relocation. On a tour in May, the headmaster told me that the school — decorated with Jewish stars and flanked by high fences — is the best in the area. Inside, the school provides free lunches of chicken and fruit. There is a sanctuary, a laboratory, a library, a computer room, and even health and family planning services. Boys in uniform play soccer in a large field next to the school’s one-story buildings. In Ethiopia, statistically more children work than read, making the school an impressive feat.
But in Gondar, the Jewish people and places to visit are dwindling fast.
In June the Jewish Agency announced that by September it plans to fly out the remaining 400 Falasha already approved by the Israeli government for aliyah. In the years since the major operations, small numbers of people of have been emigrating each month. The rest of the applicants the Jewish Agency will assess on a case-by-case basis.
The Jewish Agency has announced the end of the Falasha aliyah several times before. But this time, the Jewish Agency’s Ethiopia emissary, Asher Seyum, says it will really happen. In 2011 the Jewish Agency took over aliyah-related operations from the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry in order to streamline the process.
I met Seyum at the Florida International Hotel in Gondar, a popular gathering point for Jews and Israelis visiting the city. At age 12, Seyum was part of Operation Moses after he fled, with his family, a small village outside Gondar and headed to the Jewish camp at the Sudanese border. Now, he is back in Ethiopia as a representative for Israel.
Seyum explained that by the summer’s end, the Jewish Agency plans to conclude its operations, including the synagogue and school.
This is not to say that Ethiopia will be emptied of Jews entirely: thousands of Falash Mura, or descendants of Christian converts from Judaism, are to remain behind in Gondar and its surrounding area. Seyum explained that most Falash Mura, also called Zera Israel, converted in the 19th and 20th century, when Jewish relations with Christian rulers soured. Regardless, many kept ties with their Jewish brethren and were never fully accepted into the Christian communities. When word spread about the aliyah, many thousands of Falash Mura left their villages for Gondar and Addis Ababa, assuming they counted.
Then came the complications.
Today, both Israeli and Ethiopian groups dispute the Falash Mura’s religious and political status. It was not until after Operation Moses that the Israelis became aware of this subgroup that, up until then, had emigrated with the others. Israeli officials became wary of opportunists. Today, Falash Mura who move to Israel must undergo conversion on arrival. Under the Israeli Law of Entry, Falash Mura with family in Israel may apply to make aliyah to reunite with their family members.
Seyum explained that as a Falasha, he empathizes with the people whose lives and futures hang in the balance of Israeli policy regarding emigration.
“It’s not an easy decision,” he admitted of the Jewish Agency’s choice to wind down its operation and evaluate further emigration on a case-by-case basis. “When I talk about the final aliyah, I say it is like an operation: You do the operation and it’s very, very difficult. But if you don’t do the operation, it’s so dangerous.”
For decades, several American and Israeli organizations have been in Gondar to support the community that remains. With the Jewish Agency leaving, these organizations worry that the Jewish community will forget people here. I visited one organization, Meketa, that sponsors children and helps adults left in limbo in Gondar find jobs. In a modest shack beside the Jewish Agency compound, five men, aged 30 to 80, worked intently at looms, weaving blue-and-white talitot to sell.
Antehunegh, 38, told me that he left his village and came to Gondar eight years ago in order to make aliyah. Other weavers have been waiting in Gondar to go to Israel for twice as long. He has five children and is not happy in Gondar, where the rent is too high (400–500 birr, or $21–$27 a month), and both land and jobs are scarce. Many of his family members have already gone to Israel. With hard economic times and limited resources, people are loath to give jobs or sell land to outsiders, he claimed. “Even when there is work in the nearby villages, they won’t let you buy land or build your own house,” he said.
“We see hope in a future in Israel,” explained Antehunegh, who has five children, “If I go to Israel I’ll have the opportunities like every Israeli citizen. I’m thinking of my family and children.”
He was happy, he added, that foreigners had come to see Ethiopia.
Days later, and 100 miles away in Bahir Dar by Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile River, I met two Israeli Falasha who had returned to Ethiopia for the first time since they left with their families in Operation Solomon. We toured the muddied Blue Nile Falls together.
“I told myself that I need to do this trip for myself and my identity,” said Beny Fareda, 24, who wore an IDF T-shirt and greeted passing Ethiopians in Amharic. He waved his hand at the cow-plowed fields and wooden huts. “My parents grew up in a place that looked just like this.”
Tomorrow he would head to Gondar to visit what remained.
Miriam Berger is a freelance journalist usually based in the Middle East.